Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Fabelmans begins with a young boy standing in line with his parents, waiting to see his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
One scene in particular becomes an indelible, nightmarish experience that haunts him afterward. It is the famous scene of the circus train crashing. The boy is so terrified and obsessed that he tries to recreate the scene with his Lionel train set and an 8mm home movie camera. It is an epiphany for a future film director.
Train crashes figure heavily in this loosely autobiographical film about Spielberg’s childhood.
What follows can best be described as a train wreck of a movie.
I was surprised when I heard that Spielberg and his writing collaborator Tony Kushner were working on this project. I find it interesting when a living celebrity creates a movie autobiography of themselves.
Elton John famously attempted it in Elton John: Rocket Man back in 2017. I am still puzzled at the motivation to tell a very biased, heavily subjective story of your own life. It seems that great egos just can’t be contained.
Why trust someone else to tell the story of your life when you can do it yourself and tell it precisely as you would like to be remembered and adored.
Let’s acknowledge that the title of this movie isn’t The Spielbergs. It’s about a fictional family that mirrors Steven Spielberg’s family and childhood experiences. It’s a mix of truth and good old-fashioned storytelling.
You would expect that a movie like this from one of the greatest storytellers of our time would have to be fascinating, but it isn’t. Sadly, it’s pretty mundane and boring. It is arguably the worst film that Spielberg has ever made.
Nothing about this movie hints at Spielberg’s artistry. It frankly looks like something directed by someone else entirely. It is a clumsy, clunky attempt at a coming-of-age yarn steeped in nostalgia from the Fifties and Sixties.
It’s about the struggles of a budding young artist caught up in a soap opera scenario in which his eccentric mother is hopelessly in love with his father’s best friend. While the revelation should play as a shocking revelation, it is telegraphed in the first scenes of the two of them together.
There is no suspense. There is no drama. There is no heart pounding passion of forbidden love. There is only bewilderment about why the characters on screen can’t figure out the obvious when everyone in the audience knows exactly what is going on, from the get-go.
The relationships in the movie do not jive with the accounts the Spielberg has shared over the years. And even those accounts lack consistency.
For years, Spielberg blamed his father for the breakup of his parent’s divorce though he recently contradicted that in a CBS Sunday Morning interview, saying that he knew that his mother had fallen in love with his dad’s best friend, but continued to blame his father for the breakup for many years anyway.
It’s a bit of a puzzling mess, as is much of the movie which might have had a more coherent storyline if the confusion and contradiction could have been worked out in therapy before work on the screenplay began.
What we do have is a film that seems to be an act of psychological investigation for the purpose of closure.
Along the way, it touches upon the roots of artistic development, the experience of first love and the much darker experience of being Jewish in a community of anti-semitic WASPs. It’s about being bullied and victimized and finding the strength to survive.
Admittedly, it’s a strong message that couldn’t be more socially relevant at this moment in time. It’s the After School Special treatment that undercuts the drama.
Again, the direction and performances of several key scenes are unconvincing and flat, a far cry from the magic that Spielberg is capable of.
While one might hope that at least the filmmaking part of the story might be interesting and fun to watch, even these scenes are corrupted by Spielberg’s inability to be himself.
He has admitted that he tricked up the childhood film projects depicted in the movie by improving camera angles, etc. rather than be truthful to the amateurishness of his early efforts. Including actual footage of these projects might have been more interesting than the reimagined, technically improved versions that are shown.
Seeing the raw, early work of a future film master might have been an inspiration to budding film directors everywhere. It could have been amusing and endearing, but that would have required an act of letting go that is not really visible in The Fabelmans.
The Fabelmans is a fable, just like the title implies. It’s a biased, heavily filtered look at the early childhood of someone closely resembling Steven Spielberg who went on to become a great filmmaker.
It begs the question of whether anyone—even a master storyteller like Steven Spielberg—is capable of making a compelling movie about their own lives. Perhaps it’s impossible to resist the urge to clean it up, tidy up the details and try to peddle it as the truth, the way you’d like people to remember it.
The Fabelmans is in theaters now.